SYRACUSE — Some athletes just seem to thrive under pressure, saving their best performances for those intense times when the game's on the line and someone needs to step up and make something good happen for their team.
Diante Mitchell is definitely one of those athletes.
The Syracuse High senior guard scored 16 of his career-high 31 points in the two overtime periods to help propel the Titans past American Fork, 70-59, in a boys basketball double-OT dandy on Friday night.
"I think those games are the funnest when they're close," Mitchell said. "Sure, it's nice to be able to go out and maybe get some blowouts every now and then, but the funnest games are always the close ones that you have to win to prove that you're a good team.
"My teammates trust me and my coaches trust me, and I take advantage of it and take advantage of my opportunities.
"Every time the game is close, I just want the ball in my hands," he said. "And even my teammates, they always say 'This is your time to shine. This is where big players make big plays.' And that helps a lot knowing that they've got my back."
Syracuse had to overcome an almost unstoppable performance by American Fork's Ryan Andrus to grab the victory in its preseason finale, raising the Titans' record to 8-3 with their fourth straight win as they prepare to enter Region 1 play next week.
Andrus, a 6-foot-9 junior center with a soft shooting touch, poured in a game-high 38 points, hitting 13-of-15 free throws along the way. But only one of his teammates, ninth-grader Brendan Bailey, managed to score more than four points as the Cavemen slipped to 8-5. Bailey had nine points on the strength of three 3-pointers.
Mitchell had just three points in the entire second half but, when the game went into overtime, he found another gear and not only stepped into the spotlight, but embraced it. And his Titan teammates took turns playing vital roles in the victory.
"Our kids showed a lot of heart, and there's no back-down in 'em," said Syracuse coach Justin Nelson. "They got after it and Diante kind of takes the lead and goes right at people, and everybody kind of jumps on with him.
"It's great to have a kid like that; he does so many good things, not just scoring the ball, but leading us and rebounding the ball — I think he had double digits in rebounding tonight, too — and it's contagious when you can get somebody to go out and play that hard and who wants to win like he does.
"He's a special player," Nelson said. "He's extremely confident and makes everybody around him better, including me."
After the two teams would up deadlocked at 49 at the end of regulation, Mitchell opened the first overtime with a 3-pointer, then fed teammate Daulton Whatcott for a layup, and then Mitchell scored again on a putback.
But Andrus kept lighting up the scoreboard for American Fork and finally gave the Cavemen the lead for the last time at 57-56 with 33.6 seconds left in overtime.
Mitchell's free throw with 13.2 seconds left tied the game at 57, but he missed the second foul shot and the two teams were soon headed for a second OT.
In that one, Mitchell stole the ball and drove for a layup, then hit a baseline floater over a couple of A.F. defenders to give Syracuse an early four-point lead. Free throws by Whatcott and Kade Janes kept the Titans on top going into the final minute of the second extra session, and Mitchell hit 4-of-4 free throws over a 23-second span and added a late layup with time running out as Syracuse pulled away down the stretch.
Junior guard Michael Phelps and Mitchell combined for 16 of Syracuse's 18 first-period points, and Phelps scored the last nine of his 15 points late in the second half to help Syracuse keep pace with Andrus' steady scoring.
Whatcott was also in double figures with 10 points, while Janes added seven more for the Titans. Ninth-grader Kalvin Mudrow came up with a couple of big defensive plays after starting center Daniel Pehrson fouled out trying to contain Andrus in the first overtime.
"Down the stretch, we had a freshman (Mudrow) come in off the bench who I think had played a total of four minutes this season," coach Nelson said. "And he comes in and gets a couple of deflections down the stretch of the second overtime. He came up huge for us, and you don't expect that out of freshman. But when you get your opportunity, go make the most of it."
That's something Mitchell certainly knows how to do time after time.
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